Dr Serena Nik-Zainal awarded the Francis Crick Medal and Lecture 2022

Congratulations to Dr Serena Nik-Zainal, who has been awarded the Francis Crick Medal and Lecture 2022. This award is presented annually, and is one of 26 given by the Royal Society in recognition of exceptional research and outstanding contributions to science.

Dr Nik-Zainal was chosen for the award for her enormous contributions to understanding the aetiology of cancers by her analyses of mutation signatures in cancer genomes, which is now being applied to cancer therapy.

Dr Serena Nik-Zainal

The Francis Crick Medal is awarded in any field in the biological sciences. Preference is given to genetics, molecular biology and neurobiology, the general areas in which Francis Crick worked, and to fundamental theoretical work, which was the hallmark of Crick’s science.

Dr Nik-Zainal will receive a medal of bronze, and a gift of £2,000 at the associated prize lecture in late 2022.

Serena is a CRUK Advanced Clinician Scientist and an Honorary Consultant in Clinical Genetics. She qualified in medicine from the University of Cambridge in 2000 on a scholarship from Petronas, Malaysia. She undertook a PhD at the Wellcome Sanger Institute (WSI) in 2009 exploring breast cancer using whole genome sequencing (WGS). She demonstrated how detailed downstream analyses of all mutations present in WGS breast cancers could reveal 'mutation signatures', imprints left by mutagenic processes that have occurred through cancer development. She also identified a novel phenomenon of localised hypermutation termed “kataegis”.

As an independent investigator, Serena established a team that advanced bioinformatic exploration of WGS cancers, forging critical principles of how to interpret cancer genomes, through the largest WGS project of any tissue-type to date, of 560 breast cancers in 2016. In parallel, her team began using cell-based experimental systems to understand key genes, pathways and environmental agents that cause mutational signatures. This led to landmark reference mutational signatures for the community and a web-based resource to facilitate knowledge sharing named Signal (signal.mutationalsignatures.com).

Serena’s team has pioneered how to transform the mathematical concept of mutational signatures into clinical algorithms to detect targetable abnormalities in cancer. Her team is forging the path for how to develop computational algorithms, how to validate them in clinical studies, and ultimately how to apply them widely, to improve cancer patient care.

Dr Nik-Zainal paid credit to her team, and to those who've encouraged and inspired her to explore:

"I feel very honoured to be awarded this prize by the Royal Society. I am thrilled for my passionate, dedicated and exceedingly curious, young team. The insights that we have made and the speed at which ideas are explored, developed and implemented, cannot happen without this incredible group of individuals.

"I feel extremely privileged to have witnessed the sea change in science and medicine that has occurred because of the Human Genome Project. The understanding of the human genome, the creation of new technologies and the national clinical projects that have arisen in less than two decades, have all happened at an astonishing pace. I feel so very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, in the UK, to not simply bear witness to this unfolding, but to have had an opportunity to learn about genomics and to participate in trying to utilise new genomic knowledge. This award will truly motivate my team to push for meaningful, real-time clinical application as rapidly as possible.

"I wouldn’t have begun my research career in genomics and data science were it not for the availability of sequencing data afforded by massively parallel sequencing technology. That this technology permitted an analysis of the entire human genome in one sitting, would have been considered a preposterous notion when I started medical school. Yet, it was possible by the time I was doing my PhD. Furthermore, there were people around me, supervisors, mentors and an inspiring group of thought-leaders, that encouraged the notion of “just go where others haven’t gone”. I am very grateful to all whom gave me license to explore at will. That liberating way of thinking stays with me today."

Find out more about Serena and her research group on the MRC Cancer Unit website.